Introduction to Thomas Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population (1970)

Antony Flew

Thomas Robert Malthus was born in Guildford in 1766. He was educated first privately and then at Jesus College, Cambridge. There he graduated in 1788 as ninth Wrangler, taking Holy Orders in the same year. In 1793 he was elected to a fellowship of his college, which he held until his marriage in 1804. The first version of An Essay on the Principle of Population (the First Essay) appeared anonymously in 1798 achieving immediate notoriety. Mainly in order to collect further material, he made extensive tours abroad in 1799 and 1802, and the results appeared in 1803 as what was nominally a second edition but really a further book. Later Malthus summarized his thesis in a short essay, A Summary View of the Principle of Population, published in 1830.

In 1805 Malthus was appointed to the faculty of the East India Company's newly-founded college at Haileybury, where he occupied until his death in 1834 the first professorship of political economy established in the British Isles. He was survived by his widow, his only son and one of his two daughters.

His honours included a Fellowship of the Royal Society, and membership of both the French Institute and Berlin Royal Academy. Among his other publications were An Enquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent and Principles of Political Economy considered with a View to their Practical Application.

Antony Flew was born in 1923 and went to St John's College, Oxford, where he took a first in 'Greats' and won the John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy. During the war he learnt Japanese. He lectured in philosophy in Oxford and Aberdeen Universities, before becoming Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele in 1954. He has also taught in the United States, Australia, and Malawi. He is married, with two daughters, and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

His publications include: A New Approach to Psychical Research (1954), Hume's Philosophy of Belief (1961), God and Philosophy (1966), Evolutionary Ethics (1967); and, as editor, Logic and Language (First Series, 1951, and Second Series, 1953), New Essays in Philosophical Theology (with Alasdair MacIntyre, 1955), Essays in Conceptual Analysis (1965), and Body, Mind and Death (1964).



Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is a member of that heterogeneous elite from whose names we have derived words. In this he stands with such various figures as Charles Macintosh (mackintosh), Captain Boycott (boycott), and Duns Scotus (dunce). However, as is so often the case, what Malthus himself actually advocated differs in important ways from what has become associated with his name.

Thus in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World the expression 'malthusian drill' is applied to the taking of contraceptive precautions, although those few references to such devices which Malthus brings himself to make are all in terms of horrified disapproval. Again -- and more seriously, since here there can be no question of artistic licence -- we find acknowledged experts on population and resources attributing to Malthus, and then indignantly rejecting, policies which Malthus himself categorically and equally indignantly repudiated. Thus in 1948 at Cheltenham, at an International Congress on Population and World Resources in Relation to the Family, Lord Boyd Orr (then Sir John Boyd Orr) marked an anniversary occasion by saying:

Exactly a hundred and fifty years ago a reverend gentleman called Malthus wrote a pamphlet pointing out that the population of the world was growing, that the physical capacities were limited, and that a stage would soon be reached where there was not sufficient food to feed the people of the world. It was therefore wrong, he suggested, to bring in measures of social amelioration, for preventing the death of infants and for keeping people healthy, because if that were done more people would survive and the problem would become worse.1

Even as an account of the earliest views of Malthus this statement is a tendentious distortion. The fact that such misunderstandings and mispresentations are so common is one very good reason for reproducting this 'pamphlet' as a Pelican Classic. 'The classics', as the cynic said, 'are like the aristocracy; we learn their titles and thereafter claim acquaintance with them.'


Before starting to investigate what Malthus really said, it helps to have some biographical and bibliographical framework. Thomas Robert Malthus was the second and last son in a family of eight. His father Daniel Malthus seems to have been a rather unusual man, the friend of both David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These two indeed visited him together when the future author of the Essay on Population was a bare three weeks old. It was under the influence of Rousseau's Emile that the father arranged for both his sons to be educated privately. In 1784, at the age of eighteen, Thomas Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge. There he had an excellent undergraduate career. He read widely in both English and French literature. He won prizes for declamations in Latin, Greek, and English -- and this notwithstanding his cleft palate, something which ran in the family. (His great-great grandfather's parishioners at Northolt in Middlesex had given this as one of many reasons for petitioning Cromwell to eject their Vicar from his living!) His Italian seems to have been acquired later. We know that he took special notice of Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the last three volumes of which first appeared in 1788. He also played cricket, skated, and enjoyed a lively social life. Yet clearly none of these extra-curricular activities were allowed to get in the way of his main work. For in 1788 he succeeded in graduating as ninth Wrangler, the only one from Jesus College in his year.

This achievement is significant, since to be a Wrangler is the Cambridge equivalent of obtaining first class honours in mathematics. Malthus was thus, as the educationalists say nowadays, fully numerate. Nor did he confine himself to pure, as opposed to applied, mathematics. As he said, he was from the start 'remarked in college for talking of what actually exists in nature or may be put to real practical use' rather than for abstract speculations. Certainly while he was reading mathematics he also learnt his way around Newtonian physics. He was literate too, and had some acquaintance with history. It would be good if the same could truly be said of all our contemporaries aspiring to the diploma title 'social scientist'.

In the year of his graduation Malthus also took Holy Orders. Then in 1793, at the age of twenty-seven, he was admitted to a fellowship of his college. He resided there intermittently until 1804, when he married, and had in consequence to resign the fellowship. In 1796 he accepted a curacy at Albury, where his father lived. Two years later he published, anonymously, An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers. This is the pamphlet previously mentioned, and it is this which constitutes the greater part of the present volume. For reasons which will emerge soon enough, I shall refer to diis as the First Essay.


This First Essay was, as its full title suggests, an occasional polemic provoked by the optimistic speculations of certain currently fashionable Utopian writers. 'M. Condorcet' was Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94). His famous book was the Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progres de l'Esprit Humain, first published in Paris in 1794 and then in an English translation in London in 1795. This remarkable work was written while the author was in hiding under sentence of death. He had been active and influential in the first phases of the French Revolution. But later he fell foul of the Jacobin extremists who came to dominate the Convention. For instance, he was one who voted against the execution of the King, urging that the Republic ought to abolish the death penalty. Condorcet protested too against the arrest of the Girondins, telling the Convention that Robespierre had neither ideas in his head nor feelings in his heart. The key idea of the Esquisse is of a natural order of progress, extending through ten successive stages. The ninth of these began with Descartes and ended with the establishment of the first French Republic; while the tenth is to move on from there towards a world of abundance in which racial and national animosities will disappear, along with all inequalities of sex, wealth and opportunity.

'Mr Godwin' was William Godwin (1756-1836), the father-in-law of the poet Shelley. Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice was published in 1793, with second and third editions in 1796 and 1798. Godwin, like Condorcet, was inspired by the French Revolution, albeit from a safer distance. He too foresaw a society of social and economic equality: 'There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all.'

Daniel Malthus was enchanted by these visions. In 1797 his enthusiasms were further fanned by the publication of Godwin's Enquirer. One essay in particular, that on 'Avarice and Profusion', the father pressed upon the son. In it Godwin urged the advantages of a state of social and economic equality, maintaining that this state is 'most consonant to the nature of man, and most conductive to the diffusion of felicity'. But the son, in his own words, had not 'acquired that command over his understanding which would enable him to believe what he wished without evidence'. Instead he deployed an objection which was, he contended, 'decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and their families'.2

This objection is based upon a comparison; between, on the one hand, our powers of multiplying the numbers of our own species by reproduction, and, on the other hand, the possibilities of increasing the resources available for the support of these numbers. The paragraph of which the previous quotation is the conclusion begins: 'This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.'3

But where Lord Boyd Orr thought of Malthus as warning us against a disaster still to come -- 'a stage would soon be reached where there was not sufficient food to feed the people of the world' -- Malthus himself saw his principle of population quite differently: 'this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature.'4

Again, it would be false to say that Malthus advocated the policies which, according to Lord Boyd Orr, he suggested. Certainly Malthus did throughout his life contend, with this principle of population mainly in mind, that the actual effects of the Poor Laws were, despite all good intentions, positively harmful. Certainly he did always, for the same reason, reject all Utopian programmes for the construction of a perfect and egalitarian society. But never at any stage did Malthus himself see his discoveries as providing a warrant for abandoning piecemeal and realistic efforts for improvement. Perhaps in consistency he ought to have drawn such a moral. In fact he did not.

The last two chapters of the First Essay are an attempt to put his principle of population into the context of God's providence. Thus the whole work ends with a statement which was surely as sincere as it now seems sanctimonious:

Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest, but the duty of every individual, to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself, and from as large a circle as he can influence; and the more he exercises himself in the duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.5
It is perhaps no wonder that after a sermon such as this Richard Cobbett and other radical opponents snarled at 'Parson Malthus'!

The First Essay, like Hume's Treatise, was published anonymously. But Malthus could not complain, as Hume did, that his first 'literary attempt ... fell dead-born from the press.' On the contrary, it was this occasional polemic rather than any of his more laboriously considered later works which immediately made Malthus famous or -- if you like -- notorious. Since that first publication no one concerned for the general human welfare has been able, whatever his convictions, to ignore those problems of the pressures of population which are now labelled 'malthusian'.

Among his first distinguished converts Malthus was proud to number both William Paley and the younger Pitt. Paley was perhaps in this matter the less clear-headed of the two. But there certainly is a big shift towards a malthusian concern between the Moral and Political Philosophy of 1785 and the Natural Theology of 1802. Pitt had in 1796, in a debate on a Bill introduced by Samuel Whitbread, promised to amend the Poor Laws in such a way as to encourage large families. But in 1800 he decided not to proceed with this legislation, and explained to the House of Commons that his decision had been taken in deference to 'those whose opinions he was bound to respect'. Jeremy Bentham and Robert Malthus were the two whom he had in mind.


Despite, or because of, the stir caused by the First Essay Malthus was not satisfied with the book. He at once started work on what was to be in name though not in fact a second edition. The First Essay, as he said in the Preface to this second edition, 'was written on the impulse of the occasion, and from the few materials which were then within my reach in a country situation.' Now he settled down to a thorough examination of all the available literature. In 1799 with three college friends he made a study tour of all the countries then open to British tourists: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In 1802 he took advantage of the truce which was called the Peace of Amiens to make a similar study tour of France and Switzerland. The results appeared late in 1803 as An Essay on the Principle of Population; or, a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions.

This, as its author said in his Preface, 'may be considered as a new work.' We shall, therefore, refer to it in this second edition, and in the author's four subsequent editions of 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826, as the Second Essay. Whereas the first edition, the First Essay, was an octavo volume of 396 pages and 55,000 words; the Second Essay first appeared as a quarto of 610 pages and 200,000 words. Whereas the First Essay is, as we have repeatedly insisted, an occasional polemic designed to debunk Utopian visions inspired by the French Revolution, the Second Essay is a painstaking sociological treatise deploying a mass of detailed evidence. J. M. Keynes described the First Essay as 'bold and rhetorical in style with much bravura of language and sentiment'. By contrast, in the Second Essay 'political philosophy gives way to political economy, general principles are overlaid by the inductive verifications of a pioneer in sociological history, and the brilliance and high spirits of a young man writing in the last years of the Directory disappear.' A third great Cambridge economist, Alfred Marshall, rated the Second Essay 'one of the most crushing answers that patient and hard-working science has ever given to the reckless assertions of its adversaries'.6

For our present purposes the most important difference is the introduction into the Second Essay of the notion of 'moral restraint'. This amendment to his theoretical scheme, which will be explained in the next section, was possibly first suggested to Malthus by his correspondence with Godwin, initiated by Godwin within weeks of the publication of the First Essay. Certainly it was this innovation which enabled Malthus to claim in his later Preface:

Throughout the whole of the present work I have so far differed in principle from the former as to suppose the action of another check to population which does not come under the head of either vice or misery; and in the latter part I have endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the First Essay. In doing this I hope I have not violated the principles of just reasoning; nor expressed any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which I am not borne out by the experience of the past.

Thanks to the reputation consolidated by the publication of this Second Essay in 1803, Malthus was in 1805 appointed to the faculty of the new East India College at Haileybury. This college was founded at the suggestion, made in August 1800, of the then Governor-General of India, the Marquis of Wellesley, elder brother of the future victor of Waterloo and Duke of Wellington. The idea was to give a two year course of general education and language study to the servants of the East India Company before they proceeded overseas. The chair which Malthus occupied until his death in 1834 was the first professorship of political economy in Britain. (Adam Smith at Glasgow in the previous century had been a professor of moral philosophy.) Malthus said that the sometimes turbulent students at Haileybury not only understood his lectures 'but did not even find them dull.' The appointment, though not lucrative, must have been timely for Malthus since it was in the previous year that he had married Harriet Eckersall.

Besides fulfilling his teaching and other duties at the East India College, Malthus, like a good academic, continued to research and publish. These publications included: Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws, and of a Rise or Fall in the Price of Corn on the Agriculture and General Wealth of the Country, in 1814; Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of Restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn and An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, and the Principles by which it is Regulated, in 1815; Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application, in 1820; The Measure of Value stated and illustrated, with an Application of it to the Alterations in the Value of the English Currency since 1790, in 1823; and the article on 'Population' for the 1824 Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Most of this last was in 1830 issued separately with a few amendments as A Summary View of the Principle of Population. This is the second work reprinted here. We shall from now on refer to it simply as A Summary View, giving page references to the present volume.

The two other minor sources for the views of Malthus on population also belong to the Haileybury period. They are what were nominally the third and fifth editions of the First Essay, but really the second and fourth of the Second Essay, which appeared in 1806 and 1817 respectively. Both had important new appendices. We shall refer to these by their dates as the 1806 Appendix and the 1817 Appendix. Page references will be given to what is the last and nominally the sixth edition of Malthus' lifetime, that of 1826. In these appendices Malthus 'wished to correct some of the misrepresentations which have gone abroad respecting two or three of the most important points of the Essay.'7

It was while he was at Haileybury that Malthus got to know another of the great classical economists, David Ricardo. In June 1811 Malthus wrote to Ricardo in hopes that in private discussion they 'might supersede the necessity of a long controversy in print respecting the points in which we differ.' The wish of Malthus was reciprocated, and the two became close friends. The letters of Ricardo to Malthus were discovered by his biographer James Bonar, and published by him in 1887. But it was only in 1930 that the other part of the correspondence, the letters of Malthus to Ricardo, fell into the hands of Mr Piero Sraffa, who had been commissioned by the Royal Economic Society to prepare a complete and definitive edition of the Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. The exchanges between Malthus and Ricardo, which extended over the twelve years from 1811 until the death of the latter in 1823, do not treat population, since about this the two were in substantial agreement. Indeed Ricardo, in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, paid tribute: 'Of Mr Malthus' Essay on Population, I am happy in the opportunity here afforded me of expressing my admiration. The assaults of the opponents of this great work have only served to prove its strength; and I am persuaded that its just reputation will spread with the cultivation of that science of which it is so eminent an adornment.'8

Because these exchanges do not deal with population they are not of direct concern to us now. But as an indication of the stature of Malthus in economics generally it is worth quoting the judgement of Keynes:

One cannot rise from a perusal of this correspondence without a feeling that the almost total obliteration of Malthus' line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo's for a period of a hundred years has been a disaster to the progress of economics. ... If only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be today.9

Malthus felt the death of Ricardo deeply, and his own comment of their transactions magnifies mankind: 'I never loved anybody out of my own family so much. Our interchange of opinion was so unreserved, and the object after which we were enquiring was so entirely the truth, and nothing else, that I cannot but think that sooner or later we must have agreed.'10

The family life of Malthus seems, as this comment would suggest, to have been extremely happy. His wife was apparently a woman of quality, and certainly a very successful hostess. They had three children, of whom the younger daughter, Lucy, to their great grief died in 1825 at the age of seventeen. The other two survived them both: one as the Reverend Henry Malthus; and the other, Emily, as Mrs Pringle, the wife of Captain John Pringle, a veteran of Waterloo.11 Thomas Robert Malthus died, suddenly, in 1834 while on a visit to his wife's former home at Claverton. He is buried in Bath Abbey, in the North aisle of the nave.

The inscription on the wall above is probably by his lifelong friend Bishop Otter, whom Malthus first met when they were both undergraduates at Jesus College, Cambridge. This lapidary oration makes no mention of any of the public honours awarded to its subject, such as his Fellowship of the Royal Society, or his memberships of the French Institute and of the Berlin Royal Academy. Let us for a moment: savour its fine period character before proceeding to examine the timeless structure of his ideas:

Sacred to the memory oŁ the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches of political economy, particularly by his Essay on Population. One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth, supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labours, content with the approbation of the wise and good. His writings will be a lasting monument to the extent and correctness of his understanding. The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners, and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety, are the still dearer recollections of his family and friends.


From the First Essay to the final A Summary View all Malthus' thinking about population was framed by what was fundamentally the same simple yet very powerful theoretical scheme. This scheme has to be mastered by anyone who wants to come to terms with what Malthus really said, and it is this which constitutes his main permanent contribution.

The basis of the whole structure is in every successive treatment essentially the same. But the presentation in A Summary View is perhaps the most effective. 'In taking a view of animated nature, we cannot fail to be struck with a prodigious power of increase in plants and animals.'12 'Elevated as man is above all other animals by his intellectual faculties, it is not to be supposed that the physical laws to which he is subjected! should be essentially different from those which are observed to prevail in other parts of animated nature.'13 '... all animals according to the known laws by which they are produced, must have a capacity of increasing in a geometricaljprogression.'14

These general contentions are, when properly understood, obviously true. Malthus supports his thesis with regard to the case of our own species, and makes it more precise, by appealing to what some human populations have in fact achieved. For, as Aristotle once remarked, a thing must be possible if it in fact happens; so there must be such a power of multiplication if ever this power actually is exercised. In the light of present knowledge of the population explosions occurring now, the estimate of the strength of this power which Malthus made appears to be cautious, as indeed he intended: 'It may be safely asserted therefore, that population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical progression of such a nature as to double itself every twenty-five years.'15

The key expressions to underline here are 'a capacity' and 'when unchecked'. Malthus never claimed, what is not true, that this power of multiplication is ever -- much less that it is always -- fully exercised and realized. On the contrary, he was from the very beginning of the First Essay careful to insist that 'in no state that we have yet known, has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.'16 If it were 'left to exert itself unchecked, the increase of the human species would evidently be much greater than any increase that has been hitherto known.'17 After referring to 'the United States of America, where ... the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years', Malthus concludes that 'This ratio of increase, though short of the utmost power of population, yet as a result of actual experience, we will take as our rule; and say, "That population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, ... increases in a geometrical ratio."18


The next stage in Malthus' theory construction is to urge that:

. . . the means of subsistence, under circumstances most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio19 . . . by the laws of nature in respect to the powers of a limited territory, the additions which can be made in equal periods to the food which it produces must, after a short time, either be constantly decreasing, which is what would really take place; or, at the very most, must remain stationary, so as to increase the means of subsistence only in arithmetical proeression.20

The status of this second principle of the theory is very different from that of the first. For that human, like animal, populations -- with certain freak exceptions to be noticed later -- possess a power to multiply is a matter of fact. (Surely some more domestic version of this principle must have been among those awkward 'facts of life' into which embarrassed parents, in a less blatant age, used to have conscientiously to initiate their young?) Even the precision of the geometrical progression, doubling every twenty-five years, is a sober extrapolation from something which Malthus knew had actually happened in favourable though never absolutely ideal conditions. But the supposition of a limiting rate to the possibilities of increasing the output of food is for Malthus at best a plausible conjecture, while his formulation of this limiting rate as a particular arithmetical progression was a piece of entirely unwarranted exactness, which later developments in agricultural technology have shown to have been just wrong.

However, in fairness to Malthus, it must be emphasized that he himself offered the arithmetical ratio not as any sort of discovery but as a reasonable maximum supposition. Thus in A Summary View he wrote:

. . . it must be allowable, if it throws light on the subject, to make a supposition respecting the increase of food in a limited territory, which, without pretending to accuracy, is clearly more favourable to the power of the soil to produce the means of subsistence for an increasing population, than an experience which we have of its qualities will warrant.21

In the First Essay as in the final Summary the stress is on such expressions as 'can be supposed' and 'if I allow'. Thus, immediately after the statement of his first principle, he writes:

Let us now take any spot of earth, this Island for instance, and see in what rate the subsistence it affords can be supposed to increase. We will begin with it under its present state of cultivation. If I allow that by the best possible policy, by breaking up more land, and by great encouragements to agriculture, the produce of this Island may be doubled in the first twenty-five years, I think it will be allowing as much as any person can well demand. In the next twenty-five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land. The very utmost we can conceive is that the increase in the second twenty-five years might equal the present produce. Let us then take this for our rule, though certainly far beyond the truth; and allow that by great exertion, the whole produce of the Island might be increased every twenty-five years, by a quantity of subsistence equal to what it at present produces. The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this. . . . Yet this ratio of increase is evidently arithmetical. It may fairly be said, therefore, that the means of subsistence increase in an arithmetical ratio.22


All is now ready for the third stage in the construction of the theory: 'Let us now bring the effects of these two ratios together.'23 It is easy to see the disproportion between the geometrical (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc.) and the arithmetical (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.). In every subsequent statement of his position it is with the help of the observation of this disproportion that Malthus tries to draw the conclusion that in fact there must always be some check or checks operating against this inordinate power of reproduction. Thus in the first chapter of the First Essay he says:

By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.24

So again in the Second Essay Malthus insists that

the power of population being in every period so much superior, the increase of the human species can only be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity, acting as a check upon the greater power.25

By the time he came to write A Summary View, however, Malthus seems to have developed some slight scruple as to exactly how much and what this comparison does prove:

it follows necessarily that the average rate of the actual increase of population over the greatest part of the globe, obeying the same laws as the increase of food, must be totally of a different character from the rate at which it would increase if unchecked. The great question, then, which remains to be considered, is the manner in which this constant and necessary check upon population practically operates.26
Certainly, whatever Malthus himself may or may not have seen, there are differences: between, on the one hand, inferring that sooner or later, like it or not, there will have to be checks; and, on the other hand, concluding that it follows necessarily that checks are in fact operating constantly and everywhere. The distinctions required here can be important, both theoretically and practically. To these we shall return.


But the immediate next business is to appreciate that the fourth stage in the development of the theory is to raise 'the great question' which has been generated by the first three. Because the thrust of the First Essay is practical, it is only in the Second Essay that this theoretical question comes into its own. Thus early in the Second Essay Malthus quotes 'The question that is asked in Captain Cook's First Voyage, with respect to the thinly scattered savages of New Holland, "By what means are the inhabitants of this country reduced to such a number as it can subsist?"' Malthus remarks that it 'may be asked with equal propriety respecting the most populous islands in the South Sea, or the best peopled countries in Europe and Asia'.27 It becomes his master speculative question:

The question, applied generally, appears to me to be highly curious, and to lead to the elucidation of some of the most obscure, yet important, points in the history of human society. I cannot so clearly and concisely describe the precise aim of the first part of the present work as by saying that it is an endeavour to answer this question so applied.28
In a later passage Malthus brings out most clearly how this master speculative question is generated by his own fundamental principle of population, and how the attempt to answer it gives rise1 to the notion of checks:

The natural tendency to increase is everywhere so great that it will generally be easy to account for the height at which the population is found in any country. The more difficult, as well as the more interesting, part of the inquiry is to trace the immediate causes which stop its further progress. . . . What then becomes of this mighty power . . . what are the kinds of restraint, and the forms of premature death, which keep the population down to the means of subsistence.29

Although this master speculative question becomes prominent only in the Second Essay, in which the interests of Malthus are at least as much theoretical as practical, there is of course a corresponding practical question. The speculative question is: what checks in fact are operating? The practical question is: what is to be done about the principle of population, and, in particular, which checks ought we to choose in preference to which? This latter question is not formulated until the beginning of the fourth book of the Second Essay, where Malthus insists that, taking the operation of some great check as 'an inevitable law of nature; . . . the only inquiry that remains is, how it may take place with the least possible prejudice to the virtue and happiness of human society.'30


The fifth stage in the theory construction consists in distinguishing and classifying kinds of check. Always, from the First Essay to the final A Summary View, Malthus employs two quite different systems of classification. The first of these is neutral and detached. The second is committed and engaged. About this second system the second thoughts of Malthus were, as has been said already, importantly different from the first. But even the first system was, and needed to be, improved in the Second Essay.

(i) Thus in the First Essay the two neutral categories of preventive check and positive check are presented always as mutually exclusive: 'a foresight of the difficulties attending the rearing of a family acts as a preventive check; and the actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children, act as a positive check. .. .'31 But then later in the same work it emerges that though always mutually exclusive the two notions are not, after all, together exhaustive: 'To these two great checks to population in all long occupied countries, which I have called the preventive and the positive checks, may be added vicious customs with respect to women, great cities, unwholesome manufactures, luxury, pestilence, and war.'32

This is very clumsy. Not only does it try to squeeze in a third category where there is, surely, room for only two; it also insinuates irrelevantly evaluative notions into a system of classification which is otherwise uncommitted. This awkwardness is corrected in the Second Essay, and thereafter 'positive checks' and 'preventive checks' become labels for categories which are taken to be both mutually exclusive and together exhaustive. The former

are extremely various, and include every cause . . . which in any degree contributes to shorten the natural duration of human life. Under this head, therefore, may be enumerated all unwholesome occupations, severe labour and exposure to the seasons, extreme poverty, bad nursing of children, great towns, excesses of all kinds, the whole train of common diseases and epidemics, wars, plague, and famine.33
The latter are clearly intended to be complementary and opposite; although, thanks to the strength of the author's commitments and the delicacy of his expressions, the outlines remain a little blurred. These preventive checks now comprehend all checks to the birthrate. They range from 'the restraint from marriage which is not followed by irregular gratifications'; through 'promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions', and 'violations of the marriage bed'; and so on, up to and including 'improper arts to conceal the consequences of irregular connections'.34 This last is presumably a reference to abortion. Elsewhere Malthus even brings himself to mention contraception under the description 'something else as unnatural', as 'promiscuous concubinage'.35

(ii) In addition to the first and fundamentally neutral division of checks into positive and preventive, Malthus also employs a second system. This is uninhibitedly prescriptive and committed. Its terms too are taken to be mutually exclusive and together exhaustive. But its divisions cut across the lines drawn by the first system. Thus in the First Essay, as the sentence immediately following the passage quoted at the end of the last paragraph but one, Malthus writes: 'All these checks may be fairly resolved into misery and vice', and, a little later, 'In short it is difficult to conceive any check to population, which does not come under the description of some species of misery or vice.'36

This once granted, the practical conclusions are inescapable. We must virtuously eschew vice, and realistically resign ourselves to what are inescapable miseries of the human condition. Hence Malthus in the First Essay recommends an active stoicism:

The perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is one of the general laws of animated nature, which we can have no reason to expect will change. Yet, discouraging as the contemplation of this difficulty must be to those whose exertions are laudably directed to the improvement of the human species, it is evident that no possible good can arise from any endeavours to slur it over, or keep it in the background. On the contrary, the most baleful mischiefs may be expected from the unmanly conduct of not daring to face truth, because it is unpleasing. Independent of this great obstacle sufficient yet remains to be done for mankind, to animate us to take the most unremitted exertion.37

The only way to escape this strenuous, manly, but discouraging conclusion must be to challenge the premise that 'All . . . checks may be fairly resolved into misery and vice.' Malthus did precisely this between the First Essay and the Second Essay. I have quoted the key sentence on this already from the Preface to the latter. But the change introduced is so crucial that this sentence will bear repetition:

Throughout the whole of the present work I have so far differed in principle from the former as to suppose the action of another check to population which does not come under the head of either vice or misery; and in the latter part I have endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the First Essay.

The new third category thus admitted is 'moral restraint'. This is defined, strictly and narrowly, as 'the restraint from marriage which is not followed by irregular gratifications'.38 With this transforming modification the old claim to exhaustive-ness is then repeated: 'The checks which repress the superior power of population, and keep its effects on a level with the means of subsistence, are all resolvable into moral restraint, vice and misery.'39

Before moving to the sixth and final stage of his theory construction it is worth remarking that just as Malthus seems not to envisage the possibility that a married couple might resort to abortion in order to remove the consequences of their regular connexions, so he never explicitly entertains the thought that there could be restraint not just from and before marriage, but after and within it. Much later, in 1848, we find John Stuart Mill writing, in a book addressed to a public familiar with the ideas of Malthus:

That it is possible to delay marriage, and to live in abstinence while unmarried, most people are willing to allow; but when persons are once married, the idea, in this country, never seems to enter anyone's mind that having or not having a family, or the number of which it shall consist, is amenable to their own control.'40
It appears that the ideas both of prudential (as opposed to ascetic) sexual restraint within marriage and of contraception within marriage first began to win currency in England in the 1820s. Certainly a kind of condom had been employed by English -- and Scottish -- rakes in the previous century. But this device was then by those who knew of it associated exclusively with extramarital or pre-marital activities; and it was to be used -- in what later was to become a cant phrase -- 'for the prevention of disease only'. Readers of James Boswell's Journals will recall those frequent references to his using, or not using, his 'armour'.

Although James Mill, the father of J. S. Mill, had ventured a strong hint in his Elements of Political Economy in 1821, the credit for beginning to break these discreditable associations, and for being the first in England, explicitly and in print, to advocate contraception as a check on population, belongs to Francis Place. For in his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, completed early in 1822, he wrote:

If, above all, it were once clearly understood, that it was not disreputable for married persons to avail themselves of such precautionary means as would, without being injurious to health, or destructive of female delicacy, prevent conception, a sufficient check might at once be given to the increase of population beyond the means of subsistence; vice and misery, to a prodigious extent, might be removed from society; and the object of Mr Malthus, Mr Godwin, and every philanthropic person, be promoted by the increase of comfort, of intelligence and of moral conduct, in the mass of the population.


The sixth and last stage in the development of the theory of Malthus consists in the recognition of the relatedness of the various variables. This point will perhaps be understood best by considering two very simple diagrams (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).

Assuming that in each case the different sorts of check specified constitute an exhaustive list of mutually exclusive alternatives, then for a stable population the sums of the various checks must be sufficient to neutralize the power of increase. If in either case the force of one of the sorts of check is reduced then either the population must rise or there must be an exactly compensating increase in the force of the other sort (Fig. 1) or, possibly, sorts (Fig. 2) of check. So if, further, we know that there must be some inhibition on the enormous power of increase, it must follow that to the extent that it is not one of the possible sorts of check it will be either the other, or one of the others, as the case may be.

Thus, taking the first figure first, and granting the assumptions already stated, if the preventive checks are insufficient then the necessary work will be done instead by the positive -- above all by the unholy trinity of War, Pestilence and Famine. And furthermore, although both figures for the sake of simplicity represent only the relations between different categories of check, with appropriate alterations the same conclusions will follow about the relations between the individual members of these categories. Considered simply as a check on population, war is an alternative to abortion, and pestilence to famine.

The second of our two figures is slightly complicated by the important shift described previously. Granting the general assumption that checks are inevitable, and adding the particular assumption of the First Essay that 'All these checks may fairly be resolved into misery and vice,'41 it follows that our only fundamental choice is between these two. Granting the same general assumption, but allowing for the third category introduced by the Second Essay, we can and must 'soften some of the harshest conclusions of the First Essay'.42 For what follows now is that we have a third and surely much more acceptable option. By promoting, and where necessary practising, moral restraint we can reduce the sum of vice and misery which would otherwise be the necessary consequence of the operation of the principle of population.

Malthus himself does not make his point about the relatedness of the various variables in quite this generalized way. Instead he prefers to bring it out by elucidating the relations in particular cases. But two general statements can be quoted before we consider his application of these ideas to the particular and contrasted examples of China and Japan. In the Second Essay Malthus writes:

The sum of all the positive and preventive checks, taken together, forms undoubtedly the immediate cause which represses population; but we never can expect to obtain and estimate accurately this sum in any country; and we can certainly draw no safe conclusion from the contemplation of two or three of these checks taken by themselves, because it so frequently happens that the excess of one check is balanced by the defect of some other.43
Again in A Summary View we read:
. . . consider . . . the nature of those checks which have been classed under the general heads of preventive and positive. It will be found that they are all resolvable into moral restraint, vice, and misery. And if, from the laws of nature, some check to the increase of population be absolutely inevitable, and human institutions have any influence on the extent to which each of these checks operates, a heavy responsibility will be incurred, if all that influence, whether direct or indirect, be not exerted to diminish the amount of vice or misery.44

The abstract logical relationships become cruelly concrete in the discussion 'Of the Checks to Population in China and Japan': chapter 12 of Book I of the Second Essay. Malthus begins by marvelling at the enormous numbers of the Chinese, and picks on three causes of this immense population:

First, the excellence of the natural soil, and its advantageous position in the warmest parts of the temperate zone . . .; secondly, the very great encouragement that from the beginning of the monarchy has been given to agriculture, which has directed the labours of the people to the production of the greatest possible quantity of human subsistence . . . lastly, the extraordinary encouragements that have been given to marriage, which has caused the immense produce of the country to be divided into very small shares, and have consequently rendered China more populous, in proportion to its means of subsistence, than perhaps any other country in the world.
Given policies so opposed to moral restraint, in the very restricted and technical sense here given to that expression, we must expect a correspondingly high level of either vice or misery or both.

Sure enough, that is just what we find. Malthus cites, among other authorities, 'the Jesuit Premare. writing to a friend of the same society'. Premare says:

I will tell you a fact, which may appear to be a paradox, but is nevertheless strictly true. It is, that the richest and most flourishing empire in the world is notwithstanding, in one sense, the poorest and the most miserable of all. The country, however extensive and fertile it may be, is not sufficient to support its inhabitants. Four times as much territory would be necessary to place them at their ease. . . . A third part of this infinite population would hardly find sufficient rice to support itself properly. It is well known that extreme misery impels people to the most dreadful excesses. A spectator in China who examines things closely will not be surprised that mothers destroy or expose many of their children: that parents sell their daughters for a trifle; . . . and that there should be such a number of robbers. The surprise is that nothing still more dreadful should happen, and that in times of famine, which are here but too frequent, millions of people should perish with hunger without having recourse to those dreadful extremities of which we read examples in the histories of Europe.

After citing various other sinologues to the same effect, and making or quoting the sort of calculations which could be made without census data and other modern statistical material, Malthus points his lesson of the need for moral restraint:

The population which has arisen naturally from the fertility of the soil, and the encouragements to agriculture, may be considered as genuine and desirable; but all that has been added by the encouragements to marriage has not only been an addition of so much pure misery in itself, but has completely interrupted the happiness which the rest might have enjoyed.

It is after drawing his moral that Malthus begins to compare China with Japan. Thus he cites 'the Jesuit Parennim, writing to a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences', who says 'Another thing which you can scarcely believe is, that dearths should be so frequent in China'; and in the conclusion of his letter he remarks that, if famine did not, from time to time, thin the immense number of inhabitants which China contains, it would be impossible for her to live in peace. The work which is not done by one check has to be undertaken by others.

Having as best he might reviewed the various checks operating in China, Malthus turns briefly to Japan. His treatment is brief because 'The state of Japan resembles in so many respects that of China, that a particular consideration of it would lead into too many repetitions.' Its interest for us lies in the insistence that, whenever the values of the other variables are held constant, the force of any one check must be inversely proportional to that of the sum of the others. For 'With regard to the positive checks to population from disease and famjrie, the two countries seem to be nearly on a level.' But

The Japanese are distinguished from the Chinese in being much more warlike, seditious, dissolute, and ambitious: and it would appear, from Kaempfer's account, that the check to population from infanticide, in China, is balanced by the greater dissoluteness of manners with regard to the sex, and the greater frequency of wars and intestine commotions, which prevail in Japan.


Having allowed Malthus to speak for himself through quotations, I shall now examine his theoretical structure systematically. His fundamental principle is the proposition that human populations, like those of other living creatures, have the power to multiply by reproduction, on a conservative estimate, once every twenty-five years. There are five things to be said about this.

First, Malthus was not maintaining that human populations always do and always will increase at this rate. It is unfortunately necessary to labour this rather obvious point since many of his critics, including some who must surely have read him, have failed to grasp it fully. Thus Dr Kenneth Smith, in an elaborate polemic, remarks: 'Although his illustrations and proofs have a first appearance of careful inductive work, the basis of all his ideas is the postulate of the geometrical ratio, which he does not find in practice.'45 But no one knew better than Malthus that the geometrical ratio was not always 'found in practice'. His purpose was to draw attention to the disparity between the rate one might expect and the rate usually observed; to deduce that therefore checks must already be operating; and to raise questions about their nature and interaction.

The Malthusian conceptual scheme here bears some resemblance to classical mechanics. For the First Law of Motion states: 'Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.' Since in actual fact most, if not all, bodies are in motion and since this motion never continues for long in a right line, the questions arise: Why do bodies not continue in a state of rest or of uniform motion in a right line, what forces operate to prevent this, and how? As the First Law of Motion generates the notion of a force, so the principle of population gives rise to the malthusian concept of a check.46 Yet Dr Smith writes:

Man cannot live without food. Hence the two ratios would both be arithmetical. What then becomes of the geometrical series? It is reduced to the rate of food production in each period. . . . The invalidity of Malthus' ratios could never have escaped detection if he had stated the real series of increase and hence deduced all that it implied.47
One might as well argue the invalidity of the First Law of Motion on the ground that real bodies do not for long continue in a state of rest or of uniform motion.

Second, it follows that the absence, spread, or presence of contraceptive practices have no effect on Malthus' fundamental argument. Thus Smith remarks that Francis Place's 'advocacy of birth control was the beginning of a movement which can completely nullify the geometrical or any other ratio'.48 Later Smith says 'Malthus opposed birth control, yet it has become so widespread that where it is practised the notion of a geometrical ratio can have no validity at all.'49 But, on the contrary, it is precisely, and only in order to put a check on, this formidable power to be fruitful and multiply that contraception is and has to be employed. There would be no scope for a birth-control movement if there were not a Malthusian power for it to control.

Third, Malthus always and explicitly makes the reasonable but by no means unquestionable assumption that sexual desire and the capacities to fertilize and to conceive are constants. Thus in the First Essay he denies that there has been 'a decay of the passion between the sexes. We have sufficient reason to think that this natural propensity exists still in undiminished vigour.'50 In the 1817 Appendix he still insists 'that neither theory nor experience will justify us in believing either that the passion between the sexes, or the natural prolificness of women, diminishes in the progress of society.'51 Over a century later the Report of the British Royal Commission on Population recorded its verdict in the same sense: 'It is just possible that there has been some decline in reproductive capacity, though there is no positive evidence to this effect; and indeed so far as we know reproductive capacity may have risen.'52 Maybe some day such positive evidence will appear. But already we can be certain that the time scale of any such natural adjustment as may in fact be occurring is that of biological evolution rather than of practical politics; and, therefore, that it is not safe just to leave it complacently to 'the wisdom of nature' to dispose of this vast power of multiplication.

Fourth, both in defending his basic proposition that there is such a power and in estimating the sort of rate at which the multiplication would progress if there were no checks, Malthus takes for granted a population normally balanced. For consider one extreme case: a freak population consisting entirely of men or entirely of women would possess no power to reproduce at all -- much less to multiply by reproduction. Or you might have a population more or less equally divided between the sexes but with such a very small proportion of women of child-bearing age, and such a very high proportion of the old at death's door, that total numbers could not start to increase until after a period when they would be lower than they had been at the beginning. On the other hand you can, and nowadays very frequently do, have populations in which -- thanks to recent high actual rates of growth -- the young of both sexes predominate, and which in consequence possess exceptional potential for still further rapid growth. But these are all refinements which Malthus left to his successors. The first writer to bring out the importance of age and sex distribution generally, and of the proportions of women of child-bearing age in particular, seems in fact to have been one of the early critics of Malthus, David Booth.53

Fifth, and finally here, it is perhaps just worth mentioning, as another assumption, that Malthus always takes the norm of strict monogamy for granted. This is an institution which must itself in some aspects be regarded as a check. It must be so regarded, for instance, in so far as it ever requires a fertile woman to stay faithful to a sterile man. This particular possible predicament will not, of course, arise in reality among those who observe the custom epitomized in that memorable exclamation of the gossiping Welsh matron: 'Married, you say? Why, I did not even realize she was pregnant!'


In the previous section I emphasized that Malthus himself presented the arithmetical limit only as a reasonable maximum supposirion, and I then suggested that later developments have shown this estimate to have been far too low as a supposed universal maximum. But it is only fair to remember that Malthus made it in the light of the then available evidence, and with what seemed all reasonable generosity towards the opposition. Thus his biographer James Bonar was able to write, giving supporting authority:

If the Napoleonic times were the times of a forced population in England, they were also the times of a forced agricultural production, yet we ourselves, long after this stimulus, and after much high farming unknown to our fathers, have reached only an average produce of twenty-eight bushels per acre of arable land as compared with twenty-three in 1770, while the population has risen from about six millions to twenty-five.54

The counter-argument will be familiar to everyone nowadays, made so especially perhaps by the prestige advertisements of growth-minded corporations.55 For piquant comparison I will here quote a formulation by Friedrich Engels, who is not usually thought of as an industrialist, which he was for most of his life. It comes from his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, published in 1844 when Malthus was already ten years in his grave. Engels asks:

has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited -- that is perfectly true. But the labour power to be employed on this area increases along with the population; and even if we assume that the increase in yield due to this increase does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element -- which the economists, however, never consider as important -- namely, science, the progress of which is just as unceasing and at least as rapid as that of populations. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone -- and indeed to two men alone, Sir Humphrey Davy and Justus Liebig? But science increases at least as fast as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation. Science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions it also grows in geometrical progression -- and what is impossible for science?56


The third stage in the development of Malthus' theory is to compare the arithmetical power of production with the geometrical power of reproduction, from which -- with the help of 'that law of our nature which makes food necessary for the life of man' -- Malthus proceeds to infer that the latter must always somehow be held back by the insufficiency of the former.

This argument as it stands is not valid on three counts. First, and most obviously, because the two progressions are in step for the first two phases and only begin to diverge in the third. (Compare 1, 2, 4, 8 etc. with 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.). Thus, whenever you suppose them to begin to operate, so long as they begin together, there is bound to be an initial period in which the productive is not checking the reproductive power.

The second reason is less slick and more compelling. It is that in supposing the arithmetical limit Malthus is surely offering it as an average: 'considering the present average state of the earth, the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry . . .', and so on.57 Yet from the subsistence of such a general average limit you cannot validly deduce that the same limit will be effective all the time in every particular case. On the contrary, if there is to be any point in talking of an average, there must be room for cases falling both above and below that average. It is for instance absurd, albeit all too common and all too humanly understandable, for people to accept some average figure as the norm for pay rises, or for other desirable increases; and then to insist that, while their group must of course get more, it is only fair and proper that everyone else should have at least the average.

The third reason is the most significant for the student of population. We may very well allow that, from the premises given, you can validly infer that the power of reproduction always, in the long run, would be checked by the insufficiency of the power of production, provided that it is not checked first by anything else. But this is not at all the same as saying that from these premises alone you can validly infer that this ultimate check is already operating now; or that if -- exceptionally -- it is not operating, then sooner or later it certainly will be. Quite apart from the two other lapses just noticed, Malthus is also at fault in overlooking that other checks might forestall the pressure of any such ultimate necessity. It is, therefore, trebly mistaken to think that the disproportion between the two ratios 'implies a strong and constantly operating check from the difficulty of subsistence' (my italics).

The observation of the third of these three fallacies can be exploited in two important and useful ways. First, it can draw attention to the failure of Malthus ever to recognize the possibility that people may inhibit their reproductive powers for reasons totally unconnected with any foresight of difficulties in providing subsistence for children. Thus in A Summary View, speaking of a possible increase of population 'in the well-peopled countries of Europe', Malthus maintains that 'there is no reason whatever to suppose that anything besides the difficulty of procuring in adequate plenty the necessaries of life should either indispose this greater number of persons to marry early, or disable them from rearing in health the largest families.'58 The sovereign remedy of moral restraint is defined accordingly in terms of 'prudential considerations', which Malthus usually construes as referring exclusively to this difficulty: 'abstinence from marriage, either for a time or permanently, from prudential considerations, with a strictly moral conduct towards the sex in the interval. And this is the only mode of keeping population on a level with the means of subsistence which is perfectly consistent with virtue and happiness.'59

Once the point has been made, and especially for us for whom it is so much easier than it was for Malthus to think of the question of sex as different from the question of offspring, it surely cannot be denied that there are here frequently realized possibilities of a prudential restraint which is not concerned primarily, or even at all, with financial difficulties. Many of us who have families would admit that we could afford more children than we intend to have; and many more would say the same if they were as frank. Most of us can point to others at similar income levels who are married but by choice have no children; and this class would, I suspect, be much larger were the social pressures towards procreation less than they are.

The second point which can usefully be brought out, in the context of the identification of the third of the fallacies involved in Malthus' argument here, is the need to distinguish two concepts of tendency. In the 1817 Appendix Malthus defended his appeal to the idea of an enormous power, which is in fact always to a greater or lesser extent checked by counter-acting forces, by appealing to the practice 'of the natural philosopher . . . observing the different velocities and ranges of projectiles passing through resisting media of different densities'. He complains that he cannot see why 'the moral and political philosopher should proceed upon principles so totally opposite'.60 So far, so good.

Unfortunately Malthus is apt to misinterpret his own contention that the power of populations to multiply is inordinately greater than their power to increase their food supplies. Specifically, he is inclined to construe it as if it were the same as saying, or at any rate involved to saying that population at all times does and inevitably must press hard upon the means of subsistence. This must have made it harder for him to detect any fallacy in the argument dissected on pp. 36-7, while his acceptance of that argument necessarily reinforced the inclination.

The crucial difference was brought out well in 1832 by Archbishop Whately when he distinguished between two senses of the word 'tendency': that in which a tendency to produce something is a cause which, operating unimpeded, would produce it; and that in which to speak of a tendency to produce something is to say that that result may reasonably be expected in fact to occur.61 Very much the same point had been made a year earlier by Nassau Senior in his Two Lectures on Population. It was accepted tacitly and rather grudgingly by Malthus in the ensuing correspondence, printed as an Appendix to the Two Lectures on Population, although he apparently never grasped that it might be relevant to his argument of the comparison of the ratios.

This comparison was described by John Stuart Mill in his Principles ni Political Economy as 'a passing remark of Mr Malthus, hazarded chiefly by way of illustration, that the increase of food may perhaps be assumed to take place in an arithmetical ratio, while the population increases in a geometrical'. He proceeds to claim that 'every candid reader knows that Mr Malthus laid no stress on this unlucky attempt to give numerical precision to things which do not admit of it, and every person capable of reasoning must see that it is wholly superfluous to his argument.'62

Mill is, I am afraid, being far too generous. For this comparison, as the candid reader of the present volume will soon start to discover for himself, is given prominence by Malthus from the beginning of the First Essay right up to A Summary View. It is, indeed, to the appearance of 'mathematical certainty' which this provided that the immediate import of Malthusian ideas must largely be attributed. Nor is the comparison by any means superfluous to the argument, if this is to say that the conclusions which Malthus tries to derive in this way are themselves inessential and peripheral.

But though in one way Mill is being far too generous, in another way he is not being quite generous enough. It was not for nothing that Malthus had been ninth Wrangler in the University of Cambridge: 'We begin with mechanics and Maclaurin, Newton, and Keill's Physics.'63 The supposition of the arithmetical ratio may indeed have been 'an unlucky attempt to give numerical precision to things which do not admit of it'. But there was nothing either unlucky or inappropriate about expressing our human animal power of multiplication as a geometrical progression, nor yet about the concern of Malthus to extend the sway of numerical precision within his chosen vital field of population studies and population policies.


The fourth stage in the development of the theory consists in raising two general questions: first, how and in what forms 'this constant and necessary check on population practically operates';64 and, second, how we ought to adjust to the supposedly universal and unalterable fact that this check always does operate and always will.

I have argued that the conclusions which Malthus attempts to derive from a comparison of the two ratios do not follow from his premises as stated. Fortunately we do not need this particular comparison in order to generate an adequate speculative question. Thus there is no need to try to patch the argument up by adding as further premises any dubious generalizations either about populations invariably multiplying up to the limits of available subsistence, or about everyone wanting to have as many children as they can afford. Nor do we need to make controversial suppositions about a specifiable limit to the possibilities of food production.

Suppose instead that we simply compare the power to multiply, at a rate of the order estimated by Malthus, with the undisputed fact that actual populations often rise, sometimes remain stationary, and occasionally fall, but scarcely ever multiply at anything like such a rate. Then we can validly infer that usually some check or checks are in fact operating against this mighty power. If we now go on to notice that even in the exceptional populations in the exceptional periods some women die without having exhausted their procreative possibilities, then we can conclude not merely that checks are usually operating, but that they always do operate. The question to which this conclusion gives rise is not exactly that of Malthus. For whereas he, following Captain Cook, asked: 'By what means the inhabitants of this country are reduced to such a number as it can subsist?' we, guided by a different argument, will ask instead: 'By what means the inhabitants of this country are reduced to such a number as it in fact does subsist?' This alternative master question is for speculative purposes equally fruitful, while it has, as we have just seen, the great advantage of being generable without recourse to any questionable assertions or controversial suppositions.

But besides the speculative, academic, interest, there is in Malthus always -- and surely creditably -- a strong practical concern. The drive behind the First Essay was indeed primarily practical; and even when, in 1820, he produced his Principles of Political Economy he was at pains to add as part of the full title, considered with a View to their Practical Application. So the conclusion which he draws from his comparison of the ratios is seen as raising also the practical question of how we ought to adjust to this supposedly unalterable fact of 'a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence'. In this second case the substitute argument suggested for the first will not do. For it does not yield what is here required, the idea of fundamental and universal necessity.

The conclusion that there always is 'a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence' is one which it would probably be wrong to try to salvage. For there have been and are, or at any rate could be, populations which, thanks to the unexploited richness of their territory and to the technical possibilities available to them, could multiply at the full biologically possible rate for a few generations without feeling any shortage of the means of mere subsistence; and this even allowing that that rate is in fact considerably larger than Malthus estimated. So if we are to find some universal practical necessity for checks we shall have to resort to one or both of two other ideas: that of some unsurmountable limit in the long run, as opposed to a 'constantly operating check'; or that of a general standard of living, in contrast to mere subsistence.

Although his theoretical scheme never made provision for either of these relaxations Malthus from the beginning recognized the second, and at the end had some inclination towards the first also. Thus in the First Essay, after first insisting that reason asks man 'whether he may not bring beings into the world for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence', Malthus at once notices -- notwithstanding that his argument is officially concerned only with food supplies -- that 'In the present state of society, other considerations occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels?'65

Once we firmly raise our aims above mere subsistence and towards the achievement and maintenance of prosperous standards of living, then it becomes fairly easy to demonstrate the need for checks on fertility. For suppose the population is rising at three per cent a year, then the whole economy will have to expand at three per cent a year if the average income per head is not to decline; and so only the amount by which the economic growth exceeds the population rise can be available to increase the average standard of living. Since rates of population expansion of three per cent per year or even more are today common among the less developed countries it should not be surprising that, from a national point of view, a birth control programme is often the most profitable of all possible investments.66 Nor are such advantages available for the less developed only. Consider, for instance, how much more quickly we in Britain could hope to replace those existing schools which are out of date if only we could divert to this purpose some of the funds which are at present required to pay for the provision of new school places for additional children.67 The whole obvious yet constantly and often wilfully neglected point is summed up for me by a poster which I saw recently in Singapore. Under a picture of a couple enjoying two lively children and a car the legend in bold print ran: 'Small families own more', followed by details of the government-backed family planning services available for all those who got, and wanted to act upon, that sales message.

If we are looking for 'some unsurmountable limit in the long run', as opposed to a 'constantly operating check', we may take a hint from something which Malthus himself said, in another connection: 'Though I may not be able, in the present instance, to mark the limit at which further improvement will stop, I can very easily mention a point at which it will not arrive.'68 In 1956 Professor W. A. Lewis calculated that if the present world population were to double itself every twenty-five years it 'would reach 173,500 thousand million by the year A.D. 2330, at which time there would be standing room only, since this is the number of square yards on the land surface of the earth.'69


Stage five in the construction of the Malthusian theory consists in classifying possible checks on the multiplicative power of populations.

Even after the improvements introduced in the Second Essay the distinction between positive and preventive checks still needs more tidying. First, the dividing line has to be drawn more clearly, and put definitely either at conception or at birth. Since Malthus was presumably thinking of induced abortions when he wrote of 'improper arts to conceal the consequences of irregular connections', it looks as if, when pressed to an indelicate precision, he would have drawn it at birth. This spares us the paradox of having to count unborn foetuses as units of population; though at the price of being required to rate even spontaneous miscarriages as preventive, while every other sort of pestilence counts as positive.

Second, we need to amend even the Second Essay definition of 'positive checks'. Where that made them 'include every cause . . . which in any degree contributes to shorten the natural duration of human life'70 we must read instead just 'every cause of death'. The reference to 'the natural duration of human life' serves no useful purpose; it raises unnecessary issues of definition; it must complicate arguments and calculations made in terms of the theory; and in any case even deaths in the ripest of old age still belong on the debit side of the population ledger. The phrase 'which in any degree contributes' serves only sententiously to remind that deaths may have remoter as well as immediate causes; and it does this at the unacceptably high cost of making any measurement of the effective force of different checks virtually impossible.

When these two changes are made the concepts of positive check and of preventive check become much less fuzzy. The latter are just checks on the birth rate, while the former are simply causes of death. So it becomes fairly easy to make exhaustive classifications of kinds of check in both categories. Again, once positive checks are made to be just causes of death, the measurement of their different effective forces presents no difficulties which are not already actuarial commonplaces. Nor have we in our time -- mindful of the investigations of the late Dr Kinsey and his many successors -- any business to despair of the possibility of constructing quantitative indices of the force of different preventive checks. Waiving questions of the indelicacy inherent in inquiries of this second sort, we can say that the general aim of quantification in social studies was close to the heart of Malthus: 'It would be a most curious, and to every philosophical mind a most interesting, piece of information, to know the exact share of the full power of increase which each existing check prevents; but at present I see no mode of obtaining such information.'71

Of the other set of categories in which Malthus classifies checks there is, I think, little good to be said and nothing much to be made. In his presentation and employment of these he lies wide open to damaging criticism. First, he was careless, hasty, and -- on his own later admission -- mistaken, to rush in die First Essay, without listing possible checks systematically, to the conclusion that they could all 'be resolved into misery and vice' -- the conclusion which in turn immediately determines the gloomy morals of the whole work. Even after in the Second Essay he has brought himself to recognize moral restraint as a third member of his second set of categories, Malthus still provides no systematic review from this standpoint of possible checks. He just insists again that the list, as now extended, really is exhaustive and complete; he sees this finding as happily enabling him 'to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the First Essay'. Such carelessness and haste in matters of such importance cannot easily be excused; not, that is, of course, by any of us who can truly claim to be qualified to cast die first stone!

Second, Malthus does not attempt to offer any rationale for this tripartite classification; something which could either reinforce, or be a substitute for, a systematic review from this standpoint of all possible checks. Some rationale is surely required : the tripartite system looks awkward and unbalanced. In it the two very general and comprehensive categories of vice and misery are harnessed alongside what is for Malthus the narrow and specific notion of moral restraint. This system also looks arbitrary and factitious, in so far as there is no very obvious reason for taking the famous three to be both mutually exclusive and together exhaustive. On the contrary, for even if we agree to defer as in some way anachronistic our own enlightened conviction diat contraception as such is neither miserable nor vicious, we cannot be equally indulgent to die failure of Malthus to consider the option of some sexual restraint within marriage; and this is something which, granted the consent of both parties, no catholic Christian could think to be wrong. (Indeed, the small size of his own family may to some suggest, though it certainly cannot prove, that Professor and Mrs Malthus themselves practised this discipline.) And if the reply comes that this would be not vice but misery, then much the same could fairly be said of the prolonged and often permanent celibacy demanded by moral restraint, in the narrow Malthusian definition.

If we wanted to salvage anything from this second system of classification, we could try dividing checks first into those beyond human control and those within human control, and then subdividing the latter into the licit and the illicit. But this, though undoubtedly an improvement, would represent a radical departure from the Malthusian originals.


The final stage in the erection of die Malthusian conceptual scheme is to point out that the values of the various checks must be connected. Malthus himself, as I urged earlier (p. 28), made curiously little of this implication in his general arguments, but much more in his particular applications.

Given the tidying of the notions of positive check and preventive check suggested above, and always for simplicity assuming an isolated population with neither emigration nor immigration, this classification is obviously both exclusive and exhaustive. If such a population is to remain stable the total of births must balance the total of deaths. If it rises, then this can only be because there are more births than deaths. And if it falls, then this must be because deaths have exceeded births.

It is in terms of this simple but compulsive Malthusian scheme that we can best understand the explosive increases of population which are today affecting most of the less developed countries. For these are not in fact to any significant extent the result of increases in eidier fertility or sexual activity. For present purposes at any rate these can be taken, as Malthus took them, to be constant. What is happening is that the positive checks are being weakened without any compensating strengthening of the preventive. The crux is that it is enormously easier to introduce modern methods of death-control than it is to introduce any methods of birth-control.

I have already suggested that Malthus' other system for classifying checks may be beyond redemption. But, before leaving the subject of functional relationships between different sorts of Malthusian check, there are one or two consequences of the bipartite division in the First Essay which need to be brought out. Thus, at the beginning of this Introduction I quoted Lord Boyd Orr's charge against Malthus: 'It was therefore wrong, he suggested, to bring in measures of social amelioration, for preventing the death of infants and for keeping people healthy, because if that were done more people would survive and the problem would become worse.' Later I attacked Lord Boyd Orr's statement as a misrepresentation of Malthus: 'Perhaps for consistency he ought to have drawn such a moral. In fact he did not.' The question remains whether it would not after all be right to draw it.

Consider what an earlier editor of this First Essay, Kenneth Boulding, has happily christened the Dismal Theorem.72 Since population tends to press to the limit of available subsistence; since the power of production is beyond all comparison weaker than the power of reproduction; and since the equilibrium between population and resources can be maintained only by the constant operation of various checks, all of which are kinds of either vice or misery; then populations will always grow until there is enough misery, or enough vice, or -- more likely -- a sufficient mixture of both, to achieve equilibrium. It would seem, still following Boulding, that a corollary to the Dismal Theorem is the Utterly Dismal Theorem. Since equilibrium between resources and population can be maintained only by misery and/or vice, and since population tends to rise to the limit of available subsistence, any improvements leading to an increase in the production of food must increase the equilibrium population, and hence, presumably, increase the sum of human misery and vice.

Now, strictly, the Utterly Dismal Theorem is not valid. For this conclusion will follow necessarily only if we may also assume that the total sum of misery and/or vice required must be directly proportionate to the size of the population. Although this would in the context of the early Malthus appear to be a plausible assumption, it is never explicitly stated as such nor, I think, are we ever provided with premises from which it could validly be inferred. However, notwithstanding that the First Essay neither advocates nor strictly warrants such a conclusion, we must allow that the book does suggest what Lord Boyd Orr wrongly said that its author suggested. (The point is, it is as unfair as it is common to accuse an opponent of advocating what was in fact far from his intentions, on the irrelevant grounds that you think -- perhaps wrongly -- that what you say he advocates is the logical or causal consequence of what he recommends. The difficulty is to remember how often our opponents are less wicked -- but more ignorant, or more stupid -- than we are inclined to think.)

But even if the Utterly Dismal Theorem does not, strictly, follow as a corollary of the Dismal Theorem, the latter really does carry one wry and -- for Malthus -- embarrassing implication. For in so far as the sum of (the relevant sorts of) vice and misery provides a necessary check and in so far as such vice and misery are alternatives, it follows that to indulge in (any relevant form of) vice must be to reduce misery. This unnoticed moral of the First Essay is very similar to the notorious paradox of Bernard de Mandeville's Fable of the Bees: 'private vices, public benefits'.


The influence of Malthus, by both action and reaction, has been immense. His biographer begins: 'He was the "best-abused man of the age". . . . Malthus from the first was not ignored. For thirty years it rained refutations.'73 One partial bibliography of the controversy, confined to items published up to 1880 and within the British Isles, is over thirty pages long.74 And a recent historian of the thought of the period writes of how 'Malthus had raised a spectre which haunted half the century.'75 But I will confine myself here to noticing only two influences: first, that by action on Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the independent inventors of the theory of the evolution of species by natural selection; and, second, that by reaction on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the joint creators of what they and their disciples would have us call scientific socialism.

I drew attention to a certain limited resemblance between the Malthusian conceptual scheme and that of Newtonian mechanics, and I indicated that this resemblance is not accidental. The resemblance between that scheme and the theory of Darwin and Wallace is far greater, and this is even less accidental. I will not here describe and discuss this analogy. I have done this fully elsewhere.76 But the influence of Malthus on both of the two men who separately invented this theory of biological evolution constitutes a most remarkable text-book case-study in the history of scientific thought. It is ideal material, both because for once history did, almost exactly, repeat itself, and because the evidence for the influence on each independent discoverer is about as clear and decisive as could be desired.

Take Darwin first, since he was the first to invent the theory. The crucial passage comes in the Autobiography. This passage reads:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle tor existence which everywhere goes on, from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.77

It is a statement well worth pondering in all its aspects. Now compare it with another. As Darwin reflected on the evidence he had gathered during the voyage of the Beagle he faced the

inexplicable problem how the necessary degree of modification could have been effected, and it would have thus remained forever, had I not studied domestic productions, and thus acquired a just idea of the power of selection. As soon as I had fully realized this idea, I saw, on reading Malthus on Population, that natural selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings; for I was prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence by having long studied the habits of animals.78

Both these passages were written up to three decades after the events which they record. But these memories of Darwin's later years can now be confirmed and supplemented by his private notes written at the time.79 The evidence in the case of Wallace is similarly clear and first-hand but, in default of similar contemporary confirmation, perhaps not quite equally decisive. He too tells us in his autobiography, My Life (1905), how, at about the same time as Darwin had had his great inspiration,

perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus' Principle of Population. . . . It was the first work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology, and its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.80

His own inspiration came about twelve years later, during an attack of malaria. He gave several accounts, of which the fullest and best is also in My Life:

One day something brought to my recollection Malthus' Principle of Population, which I had read about twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of 'the positive checks' to increase . . . which keep down the population. . . . It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and, as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind, the destructions every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have become densely crowded with those that breed most quickly. . . . Why do some die and some live ? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine, the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain -- that is, the fittest would survive. Then at once I seemed to see the whole effect of this. . . . The more I thought over it the more I became convinced that I had at length found the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin of species.81

The reaction of Marx and Engels to Malthus was apoplectic. In the same early work from which I have quoted already Engels railed at the 'sham philanthropy' which 'produced the Malthusian population theory -- the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love of neighbour and world citizenship'.82 Later he asks, starting with words which sound a little incongruous on the lips of an atheist: 'Am I to go on any longer elaborating this vile, infamous theory, this revolting blasphemy against nature and mankind? Am I to pursue its consequences any further? Here at last we have the immorality of the economist brought to its highest pitch.'83 In this violent reaction Marx followed Engels: 'The hatred of the English working class against Malthus -- the "mountebank-parson" as Cobbett rudely calls him -- is therefore entirely justified. The people were right here in sensing instinctively that they were confronted not with a man of science but with a bought advocate, a pleader on behalf of their enemies, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes.'84

The reason why this is more than an historical curiosity is, of course, that Marx and Engels have turned out to be the founders of a great crusading religion. They were, so to speak, the prophets of the secular Islam of the twentieth century. It is in the light of their vehement reaction to Malthus, therefore, that we have to understand the reluctance of those who bear the Marxist name to admit that there ever is or can be any need to check the increase of population. Thus we find a Soviet spokesman at the international conference on population in Rome in 1954, T. V. Ryabushkin, laying down the party line in these terms:

In the conditions of the capitalistic mode of production a certain part of the population systematically becomes relatively superfluous. . . . In a socialist society . . . the problem of excessive population no longer arises . . . the Malthusian theory is completely wrong, and fruitless to explain historical facts. But maybe it has some sense for population policy in the future? Maybe it makes some sense to reduce the rate of increase in population in any economically backward country in order to increase to some extent the level of well-being of the population in the immediate future? To these questions also we give a sharp negative answer. The Malthusian theory is harmful because it distracts attention from really scientific ways of increasing jhe well-being of the working people.85

Enough has, I hope, been said already to show that the correct answers to both Ryabushkin's questions is not 'No' but 'Yes'. It is scandalous to pretend, as he and his masters do, that policies to limit reproduction are incompatible with policies to increase production. There is no sort of impossibility about pursuing both at once. Of course, whatever proportion of available resources is put into a birth-control programme cannot also be expended on the direct development of agriculture and industry. But that is not to say that you cannot have some of one and some of the other. In fact you may well find that you can only get a strong response to that programme when the economy is developing too, just as you cannot get the maximum possible rises in income per head if you allow economic development to be swallowed up by population growth.

Since this last is a demonstrable truth, we have here one of those situations in which ideology may conflict with practice. Fortunately for the secular theologians of Marxism there is one saving text. It comes in a rather late letter from Engels to Kautsky(1 February 1881):

There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty. It does not seem to me that it would be at all difficult in such a society to achieve by planning a result which has already been produced spontaneously, without planning, in France and Lower Austria.

The other thing which can ease or altogether remove the practical problems for a Marxist-Leninist party, once it has installed itself in power, is that there is no obstacle in Marxist principle to making contraception and abortion freely available, provided this is not done for Malthusian reasons. (Connoisseurs of casuistry will find it illuminating, as well as maliciously agreeable, to add this to their lists of possible applications of the Principle of Double Effect; thus while, for instance, it is, in Roman Catholic eyes, utterly wrong to assist in euthanasia it is very good to relieve pain -- and the side effect of a necessarily large dose of painkiller may just happen to be heart failure; and then again while in some jurisdictions the sale or advertisement of contraceptives is illegal, the traffic in condoms 'For the prevention of disease only' is not; and so on.)

It is perhaps indicative of who the 'sham philanthropists' really were, that neither Marx nor Engels ever showed any interest in or sympathy for the English birth-control movement, though this had been started by the impeccably radical Francis Place. In general both Marx and Engels were concerned with the future of an abstract social class rather than with the present welfare of human beings, even if these happened to be members of that class. (Who even tries to prove that Engels was a model employer?) And both Marx and Engels seem to have been as blind as the hated Malthus himself to the possibility that people might want to inhibit their reproductive powers for reasons which are not wholly, or even at all, economic. The same certainly cannot be said against Lenin and the elite of the Old Bolsheviks. For he and they insisted that the availability of both contraception and -- as a longstop -- abortion are necessary conditions of human emancipation, and especially of the emancipation of women: which they are.


The aims of the First Essay were primarily practical. It was only in the Second Essay that the conceptual scheme devised for these purposes became the theoretical framework for a major descriptive and explanatory treatise which at once achieved its present status as the one indispensible landmark in the history of population studies. It was later still, years after the death of Malthus, that his fundamental ideas provided the crucial stimulus to the development of the theory of the origin of species by natural selection. So it is perhaps fitting if now, when we look back through all the dust and hubbub of the still continuing controversy, the main achievement of Malthus appears to be practical.

This main achievement is to have brought questions of national population and individual family size within the sphere of morality and prudence, of policy and decision. Of course, to say this is not to say that individuals and organizations do not still pretend that this is not so. On the contrary, it is precisely because they very often do make these pretences, and do show this form of what Sartrean existentialists would call bad faith, that Malthus remains so relevant. Consider, for instance, how most people in Britain still go on as if the present and expected future increase in the total national population were something entirely beyond human control -- like the weather; and as if, consequently, it were something to which everyone and everything just has to adjust or be adjusted as best may be. (Significantly, perhaps, such bad faith was far less common in the thirties when the immediate prospect was of a population decline.) Nor, again, is my picking on this expansion of the realm of policy and decision as the great lesson which Malthus taught intended to imply that Malthus himself fully took his own lesson. On the contrary, the fact is, he did not. For he left it to others to point out that there could be moral restraint, in a wider sense, not merely from but within marriage.

No, the point is not that the lesson is nowadays fully mastered and taken to heart by everyone, but that since Malthus there is no excuse for those many who would ignore it. There is no excuse for those in Britain who take extrapolations of present population trends as unalterable data, and then ask how in an already congested country we are to accommodate another five Birminghams by 1984, or whatever it may be. Their offence is compounded by the certainty that a large part of our annual increase would disappear if only we had a strenuous and effective programme to ensure that no woman has more children than she wants to have, nor has these before she wants. Such a programme should in any case appear independently desirable to anyone genuinely concerned about welfare and emancipation.

Again -- and far more important, if only because of the vaster numbers affected -- there is now no excuse for those who in prescribing for developing countries attend only to production and never to reproduction. Nassau Senior, in his over-generous summing up of the agreement reached in his controversy with Malthus, put his finger on the crucial point: 'No plan for social improvement can be complete, unless it embraces the means both of increasing production, and of preventing population making a proportionate advance.'86

January 1970



1. Conference Report, pp. 10-11. 7

2. First Essay, p. 72. Page references are to this edition.

3. ibid., p. 72.

4. ibid., p. 124.

5. ibid., p. 217.

6. J. M. Keynes, Essays in Biography, Macmillans, 1933, p. 117, and A. Marshall, The Economics of Industry, 2nd ed., Macmillans, 1896, p. 30.

7. Second Essay, Vol. II, p. 443.

8. David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, ch. 32.

9. J. M. Keynes, Essays in Biography, pp. 140, 144.

10. Reported by W. Empson in the Edinburgh Review, January 1837, p. 499.

11. Kenneth Boulding is mistaken in saying: 'Malthus . . . confined himself to three children, only one of which survived to maturity' (Malthus, Population, University of Michigan, 1959, p. xii).

12. A Summary View, p. 223.

13. ibid., p. 225.

14.ibid., p. 226.

15. ibid., p. 238.

16. ibid., p. 73.

17. ibid., pp. 73-4.

18. ibid., p. 74.

19. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. 10.

20. A Summary View, p. 242.

21. ibid., pp. 239-40.

22. First Essay, p. 74.

23. ibid., p. 74.

24. ibid., p. 71.

25. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. II.

26. A Summary View, p. 242: italics in original.

27. Second Essay, Vol. Ill, p. 240.

28. ibid., Vol. I, p. 67.

29. ibid., Vol. I, p. 218.

30. ibid., Vol. II, p. 255.

31. First Essay, p. 89.

32. ibid., p. 103.

33. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. 15.

34. ibid., Vol. I, p. 16.

35. ibid., Vol. II, p. 8.

36. First Essay, pp. 103 and 106.

37. ibid,, p. 199.

38. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. 15.

39. ibid., Vol. I, p. 2411.

40. John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, II, xiii, 1.

41. First Essay, p. 103.

42. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. viii.

43. ibid., Vol. I, p. 256.

44. A Summary View, p. 249-50.

45. Kenneth Smith, The Malthusian Controversy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951, p. 331.

46. Of course, this analogy should not be pressed too far. But that there is some resemblance is certainly no coincidence. We know that Malthus was soundly grounded in Newtonian physics at Cambridge. In the First Essay he goes out of his way to express admiration for 'the grand and consistent theory (p. 126) and 'the immortal mind' (p. 205) of Newton; and he argues strongly that 'the causes of population and depopulation have probably been as constant as any of the laws of nature with which we are acquainted' (p. 114). In seeing classical mechanics as the model for the human studies Malthus put himself in a long and distinguished tradition extending back at least as far as the Hume of the Treatise (published 1739-40) and on well into the nineteenth century, and after. On this aspiration to be 'the Newton of the moral [i.e. human] sciences' see, for instance, E. Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, Faber & Faber, 1928, especially Chapter I.

47. op. cit., p. 234.

48. ibid., p. 325.

49. ibid., p. 329.

50. First Essay, p. 89.

51. 1817 Appendix to Second Essay, Vol. II, p. 483.

52. H.M.S.O., 1949, p. 34.

53. See his 'Mathematical Dissertation' in W. Godwin, Of Population, London, 1820.

54. James Bonar, Malthus and His Work, 2nd ed., Allen & Unwin, 1924, p. 69.

55. See, for instance, the passage from L. H. and A. T. Day, Too Many Americans, quoted in Population in Perspective, edited by B. Young, O.U.P. 1968.

56. This is found most conveniently in the form of an Appendix to K. Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1884, edited by

D. J. Struik and translated by M. Milligan, International Publishers, New York, 1964. The present passage, except in so far as I have made some small translation changes not affecting the sense, occurs at p. 222.

57. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. 10.

58. A Summary View, pp. 242-5.

59. ibid., p. 250: compare Second Essay, Book I, Chapter II, passim.

60. 1817 Appendix to Second Essay, Vol. II, p. 485.

61. Lectures on Political Economy, Lecture IX.

62. John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, II, xi, 6.

63.Letter to his father, dated 14 November 1784.

64. A Summary View, p. 242. 40

65. First Essay, p. 76.

66. See 'The Effect of Fewer Births on Average Income', S. Enke and R. Zind, in the Journal of Biosocial Science, Vol. I, No. 1, Jan. 1969, pp. 41-55. They conclude: that a modest birth control programme costing thirty U.S. cents per year per head of population could, over only fifteen years, raise the average income in a less developed country by almost twice the percentage by which it could be raised without such a programme; that such an investment could yield an undiscounted return on cost of thirteen-fold in five years, and eightyfold in thirty years; that the value of the permanent prevention of a birth in such a country is twice the average income per head therein.

67. For a development of this point see 'Population Control: Who Needs Persuading?', Madeleine Simms, in Question 4, Pemberton, 1971. Mrs Simms argues that in Britain a drive to ensure that children were only born to parents who want them when they want them could, for a cost which in terms of the national budget would be derisory, secure two enormous goods. First, it would relieve all those directly concerned. It ought to be intolerable that there still are unpremeditated pregnancies and unwanted children. Second, it would by at least stabilizing our population relieve all those growing pressures on amenity, space, and social services which are constantly being increased by our present population growth oŁ up to a quarter of a million a year.

68. First Essay, p. 127-8.

69. W. A. Lewis in The Duke of Edinburgh's Study Conference; Background Papers, O.U.P., 1957, Vol. II, p. 94.

70. Second Essay, Vol. I, p. 15.

71. 1806 Appendix to Second Essay, Vol. II, p. 453 n.

72. See the foreword to the work mentioned in note 11, above.

73. James Bonar, Malthus and His Work, 2nd ed., Allen & Unwin, 1924. pp. 1-2.

74. 'A List of Books, Pamphlets and Articles on the Population Question, published in Britain in the period 1793-1880', J. A. Banks and D. V. Glass, in Introduction to Malthus, ed. D. V. Glass, pub. C. A. Watts, 1953.

75. Professor Basil Willey, 'Origins and Development of the Idea of Progress' in a collection of talks by various authors first broadcast by the B.B.C., Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians, Sylvan Press, 1949, p. 43.

76. 'The Structure of Darwinism', in New Biology 28, Penguin Books, E.P.P.-3 49

77. C. Darwin, Autobiography, ed. N. Barlow, Collins, 1958, p. 120.

78. C. Darwin, The Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication, J. Murray, 1868. Vol. I, p. 10.

79. See C. Darwin and A. R. Wallace, Evolution by Natural Selection, C.U.P. 1958, pp. 46-7 and 116-17. This and other relevant material is to be found in R. M. Young, 'Malthus and the Evolutionists', Past and Present, No. 43, 1969, pp. 109-45.

80. My Life, Chapman and Hall, 1905, Vol. I, p. 232.

81. ibid., Vol. I, pp. 361-2.

82. F. Engels, 'Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy', 1844, p. 199.

83. ibid., p. 219.

84. This passage comes from what was originally intended to be a final volume of Capital, but in fact appeared in two volumes, edited K. Kautsky, as Theorien über den Mehrwert (Theories of Surplus Value). The relevant section of this book and other material is found most conveniently in R. L. Meek, Marx and Engels on Malthus, Lawrence and Wishart, 1953. It is to be regretted that Meek speaks throughout in His Moscow's Voice. Thus his long Introductory Essay concludes: 'The struggle against Malthusianism is an integral part of the struggle for peace in the world today' (p. 50) - a conclusion which only begins to have some modest degree of plausibility if the word 'peace' is read as roughly equivalent, in this sort of context, to 'Soviet power' or 'Communism'.

85. World Population Conference 1954, United Nations, 1955, Vol. V, Meeting 28, pp. 1032-3 and 1038. One of the paradoxes of this conference was the way in which Roman Catholic and Communist ideologues kept finding themselves in Holy-Unholy Alliance.

86. Nassau Senior, Two Lectures on Population, p. 90.